Paul Andersen: As city life wanes, it’s ‘to the mountains!’
I caught up to a couple hiking a wilderness trail a few weeks ago and stopped to talk. In the course of exchanging pleasantries and sharing our Aspen connections, the man said he has been a trombonist with the Aspen Music Festival for 30 years.
We did the usual name-dropping of musicians we know at the festival, which is canceled this year due to COVID-19.
“So, you’re here visiting?” I asked.
“No, we just bought a place at Willits,” his wife said. “We made the decision to stay here.”
“Welcome to the neighborhood!” I said, feeling like a Walmart greeter. Later, I wondered at my authenticity.
How many is too many when the Roaring Fork Valley feels like it’s in a constant rush hour this summer? When trailheads are jammed with single-occupancy vehicles? When grocery store checkout lines loop around the aisles? When the airport is stacked wing-to-wing with jets? When facemasks are recklessly hung around one ear like an afterthought?
It’s not just about having “more people,” but more good people who can enrich the community. So, it’s hard to begrudge the choice this couple made when their urban lives are on hold, when the cultural and social institutions that make cities attractive, vibrant and entertaining are shut down.
Concert halls are empty. Art museums are restricted. Theaters are shuttered. Schools are closed. Parks are subdivided into 6-foot circles. Restaurants are roulette wheels of risk. High-rise apartments are prime for contagions. With the advent of virtual work from home, urban office buildings seem archaic. No longer are they incubators for style, innovation and productive creativity; they are now incubators of disease.
The social magnetism of urban life is no longer an allure; it’s a liability. Cities are suddenly danger hot spots rife with COVID and civil unrest. Urbanity has become more of a stigma than a mark of prestige. Today, getting out of the city is a sign of status, especially if you have a place in a mountain resort like Aspen. And the wealthier the getaway, the wealthier the people getting here.
Aspen is swarmed by urban flight. Those with means have decided they would rather endure whatever the pandemic brings in Aspen than shut themselves away in the urban density of high-rise apartments and secluded neighborhoods bereft of the usual menu of cultural enrichment.
So they come to Aspen, feeling like they’re on permanent vacation. Here they flout COVID protocols by bumping shoulders with those who want to believe that Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley are somehow immune.
Business is brisk here with brimming restaurants and thronging streets. Real estate developers and contractors are rubbing their hands together as demand spikes and development blooms. Ironically, developers will answer this demand by building this valley into a city as quickly as possible.
I recently wrote that trail popularity can be viewed as a benefit, that more people getting back to nature means more support for land conservation. Now that trailheads are nearly unmanageable, someone asked me how I feel about such generosity of spirit. The answer is: conflicted.
The trombonist and his wife deserve the beauty they hike to see. And doesn’t everyone? Sure, as long as they stay off my trail and stay away from my favorite places. As long as social distancing mean miles instead of feet.
The elephant in the room is whether the ski resorts will open. Yet, even without lift-served skiing, this valley could still be inundated as cities remain stigmatized by COVID and racial strife and are stultified from a lack of what once was so bright and shining and pulsing with vitality.
Maybe it’s time to reverse the trend and reevaluate the latent promise of New York, Chicago and LA. Maybe now is the time to bargain hunt properties for that tony pied-à-terre on Michigan Avenue or Central Park.
Once there is a vaccine, the exodus from urbanity will turn around and flood right back. Once the bloom is off rural living, then maybe we can generously share the coveted sense of place to which so many aspire.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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